Wednesday, December 29, 2010

CLUCK: Putting Backyard Chickens on Trial: Solution or New Problem?

One suggestion that has been advanced in regard to the proposed re-legalization of chickens in the City is the idea of a finite trial period -- a test time period with a sunset deadline at which time the whole matter would be evaluated and either continued, modified, or terminated.

Sunset provisions are popular with elected officials because they defer decisions and appear to offer something to both sides. Proponents get to feel like they have gotten most of what they want and can make their case again later, and opponents see it as an opportunity to redouble their efforts to stop what they see as a mistake. Either way it is off the table for awhile -- the hard decision postponed, possibly to another set of decisionmakers.

Hidden in the sunsetting trial period concept are some assumptions:

• The premise that nothing is lost by allowing a change that is only guaranteed for a finite period
• That a particular fixed period determined in advance makes the most sense
• That this is the only way to ensure there will be review and adjustment
• And that the issue will be less contentious the second time around

To the extent that people invest resources during the "trial period" there will be costs and that's because people will make different choices if they think they are making a permanent or a temporary investment. In the case of chickens, people will be investing in a coop. It stands to reason that you might spring for a little better or more secure coop if you thought it was a long term investment, than if you thought it was a short term investment. This becomes obvious the shorter the time period. If it were to be a three month time period people would be foolish to spend a lot of money on a coop.

Picking a date certain is appealing, but begs the question of how one can know in advance what the most appropriate trial period might be. The matter might prove to be problematic quickly, or it may take more time for issues to arise or problems to resolve themselves. In the case of chickens, it will take people awhile to build or acquire coops, get birds, and get them laying. Would a year be enough to evaluate? Two years? Hard to know in advance.

Explicitly declaring a definite trial period may seem like the only way to make sure what has been done can be undone, but that's seldom the case. When you think about it, almost everything in the city proceeds on some sort of trial basis right now. The City manager is employed on sort of a trial basis - if he loses the support of the commission someone else will be hired. Roundabouts are being built on what amounts to a trial basis -- if they are a complete flop, they will eventually be removed and replaced with signaled intersections. Even the commissioners themselves serve on a trial basis -- if the electorate isn't happy they terminate the trial. We can even view the current ban on chickens as a trial -- they were legal, then they weren't, now we're reconsidering -- so their banishment has proceeded on a trial basis. So really, almost any time three commissioners want to revisit something (with the exception of long term arrangements like FP&L or Marina Jacks) they can-- review is always an option.

A basic tenet of procrastination is that by putting something off, it will somehow resolve itself or get easier in the future. That's certainly a possibility, but there is no guarantee. If the parties in contention simply use the trial period to marshal more forces, then postponing a decision won't make things easier, but harder.

ANOTHER DIMENSION  There's a fifth dimension to the issue as it relates to chickens, or any living animal. Unless the those with chickens are to be grandfathered in at the end of the trial, then terminating the trial creates a risk of going to households and telling them to get rid of their chickens. That will not only be traumatic for the owners, but create a serious animal welfare problem. Better to adopt good rules at the front end, than to create problems later on.

For these reasons, the Commission should think carefully about considering any trial period and give serious consideration to the reality that they have the ability to amend or adjust provisions at any time if there is a need.

Re-visiting a situation that has mostly resolved itself because of a prior commitment to do so is probably not the best course of action.

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